Ilan Stavans knows all about variety. Born into a Jewish family in Mexico, Stavans is now a professor of Latin American and Latin culture at Amherst College. He has authored, edited, or translated more than 40 books spanning a variety of genres and topics: nonfiction works on the dictionary, graphic novels on Latin culture, collections of poetry, and more.
“The mind is a restless thing and should be allowed to wander and to wonder,” he tells PW. “We are often asking the mind to settle down, particularly in academia where specialists are celebrated for knowing a lot about very little.”
Given this intellectual wanderlust, it comes as no surprise that Stavans again recreates himself in his latest book, With All Thine Heart: Love and the Bible (Rutgers, Sept.), this time critiquing the literary quality of the Hebrew Bible as it speaks of human love in its many forms.
As with his 2007 book, Love and Language (Yale), With All Thine Heart takes the shape of a series of conversations, here with freelance writer Mordecai Drache. The two set out to converse via e-mail, following a strict time line so the conversation would appear as an unbroken intellectual exchange. As Stavans puts it, it is a theatrical, pressure-filled “dance” between two minds. The conversational format makes the book accessible to all types of readers, according to RUP publicity manager Lisa Fortunato.
During the dialogue, Stavans takes an outsider’s perspective on the Bible, addressing its literary merits instead of its spiritual implications. “We have been kidnapped by religion when it comes to the Bible,” he says. “Even before we open the book, we are already full of preconceptions of what we’re going to find there.”
Stavans views the Bible as a collection of tales and characters that display the spectrum of human emotions. His responses in the dialogue assert that love has many meanings in the Bible, and that God has as many faces as people have emotions. “[He] is a God that sometimes makes me very angry and sometimes I admire very much,” Stavans says. “He’s repulsive and adorable.”
With All Thine Heart twists and turns between Stavans’s views of God, descriptions of works of art, psychological analyses, and etymological explanations. It can be dizzying at times, yet the exercise is as fascinating as the topic itself.
Stavans has no intention of putting an end to his intellectual adventures. His next projects will likely include a second book on Pablo Neruda, another graphic novel, and a biography of Isaac Bashevis Singer, whose short stories he has edited.